What’s love got to do with it?

Modern Romance ★★★★
by Aziz Ansari
Penguin Press, 2015

modern_romanceI’ve been so behind on my reviewing these days, but I had so much fun with this one I wanted to make sure I didn’t let it fall through the dark cracks into the swirling abyss where my non-reviewed books go.

I’m a huge fan of Ansari. I think he’s cute as a button and funny as goddamn hell. I watched him in Parks & Rec, his most recent Netflix original Master of None (which I highly recommend), and thoroughly enjoy his stand-up concerts. He’s not at the same level as Louis CK or Patton Oswalt, but he’s also a lot younger than these gentlemen who have been honing their dark and brilliant comedy for decades now.

Modern Romance is not your typical “comedian writes a book” fare. It’s not a memoir, or a book filled with ruminations on the life of a comedian. It’s a thinky piece, backed up by real sociological research, with pie charts and everything! Ansari’s approach to breaking down the ins and outs of dating and hooking up and settling down in the 21st century is as intriguing and compelling as it is infectious and informative. I loved every minute of it. The layout is light and breezy, and super accessible without distilling and dumbing down the subject matter too much as to be insulting to its audience. Ansari wants to make you laugh, make no mistake, but he’s also very earnest in his desire to tell you what he’s learned.

And can I just say I find all of it utterly FASCINATING. I’m addicted to “meet cute” stories (even though I would never consider myself a romantic, and have an averse reaction to rom-com movies — that make me break out in hives). But how people meet and when they decide “to put a ring on it” (or not) can always get my attention. I have to check myself from being perpetually nosy all of the time, getting the “deets” on all this stuff from my friends, both of the online and the in real life variety.

For me, this book is too short. With its laudable success my hope is that Ansari will be compelled to pen a follow-up, because if there’s one thesis that comes chiming out loud and clear here, it’s that the 21st century dating world is changing fast, at warp speed, impacting how we communicate with one another, form bonds and friendships, and take that scary running leap into “the big commitment”. A lot of the current research being done is showing that the bonds we form online, platonic or otherwise, can no longer be dismissed so easily as superficial and suffering by comparison to those we forge “IRL” (in real life). I do believe most of us on this site would concur that social media has opened up a “brave new world” that’s not just brighter and more vibrant, but has proven increasingly successful in bringing colorful people into our lives that we otherwise would not have known existed, friendships that we now rely upon and cherish.

And that “modern romance” is blooming out of those virtual connections should really be coming as no surprise to anyone.

Ansari does an excellent job of pointing out the pros and cons of modern romance in the 21st century in all its tech’d out, geeked out splendor. We now have more choice than ever before, all at our fingertips with the click of a button or the swipe of a screen, but that landslide of choices might also be paralyzing some of us into making any choice at all. Our standards and expectations for a lifelong partnership might have been raised to exceptionally high, unreasonable levels too. With all that choice at our fingertips, why would we settle for anything less than AMAZING? That perfect “soul mate” who is going to fulfill every single one of our needs every day for the rest of our days. Pfft, people you know this: that person does not exist.

But it’s not all bad news. Technology has not ruined romance for us living in the 21st century. In fact, for many of us, especially women — things have improved vastly. Not because of the tech component, but because women are no longer expected to settle down as early as possible. We can invest in our careers now, and date more and live life as a single, learning about ourselves and the things that are going to make us happy if we do decide to pair off.

There are many areas (due to space constraints) that this book by necessity leaves unaddressed or goes light on, and Ansari is very good about pointing those out at the beginning. One thing missing for me is a breakdown of dating from an extrovert versus introvert point of view. I think our current technology has been an absolute miracle and felicia_daymarvel to introverts who struggle to put themselves out there in the real world of bars and supermarkets and church basements, but are absolutely charming and brave and socially high functioning on the interwebs. It’s been an essential transition for that half of the human population to discover their “tribe” and connect in meaningful ways to people it would have been extremely unlikely they would have ever met IRL.

(and it’s here I’m going to put a plug in for Felicia Day’s memoir You’re Never Weird on the Internet who also describes this “social revolution” for introverts in a way that resonated with me completely).

So in case it isn’t obvious by now, I loved this book and I think everyone should read it, young/old, guy/girl, married/single. While it’s easy to despair of the human race, and we know there are too many assholes and unforgivable idiots and sneaky jerkfaces running around out there, human behaviour and why we do the shit we do is still endlessly fascinating, isn’t it? I think so.

On Goodreads’ newly revised ‘gag order’

How to Talk to a Liberal (If You Must): The World According to Ann CoulterHow to Talk to a Liberal (If You Must): The World According to Ann Coulter

Ann Coulter

Thanks to Goodreads’revised reviewing policy, I can no longer share with fellow members my thoughts and feelings about “author” Ann Coulter and the horrible, sanctimonious, self-righteous, ignorant bilge she peddles daily in mass media and in her useless life. Ann Coulter hates Canadians — well guess what, Ann? In the words of Jesse Pinkman: The feeling is mutual, bitch. Let it be said I would rather lick a donkey’s balls than fork over any money to you supporting your brand of hatred, racism and overall suckitude.

This public service message has been brought to you in violation of Goodreads Article 11.4 – You Write What You’re Told. Thank you Goodreads for ensuring a brighter, better tomorrow for readers everywhere!

 

John Green wants to make you cry, but first he’ll make you laugh

grca_badge_winner-f9454940ba1e5388d3d719979c7f3f51The Fault in Our Stars ★ ★ ★ ★ ★
John Green
Dutton Books, 2012

The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves. ~Julius Caesar

I fell in love the way you fall asleep: slowly, and then all at once.
~The Fault in our Stars

The_Fault_in_Our_StarsAlright, alright! I admit it, it got to me — it freaking absolutely got to me. If I were Superman this little book would be my Kryptonite. Why did I think I would be immune? I was so smug going into this, feeling secure in my awesome, arrogant certainty that the sure to be oodles of maudlin and reams of cliches would keep me safe and sound from any wrenchings of the heart. My overall dubiousness and cynicism would serve as my protective shield, offering immunity against such ruthless emotional manipulation — nay exploitation — about to be perpetrated against my person. Sick kids? Cancer? Dying sick kids with cancer? Dying sick kids with cancer falling in love? Really? You’re going to go there so completely and unapologetically and still expect me to respect you in the morning?

Despite all the obvious pitfalls lying in wait for John Green, he manages to avoid just about all of them (seemingly with ease). I experienced a level of integrity and commitment to the subject matter that gave sufficient weight and depth to what could have just as easily turned out to be breezy and shallow.

That’s not to say that this story wallows in gloom and gravitas — far from it. It’s funny. I laughed out loud — out loud — and when I wasn’t doing that I snickered, grinned, and tittered (yes, there were a few titters). I also bawled like a baby, but the laughter came first, and the tears were earned.

Hazel Grace — our terminal narrator — is lovely. You will notice she doesn’t always act or speak like your average teenager, and that’s because she isn’t one. Hazel has been in a staring contest with Death since she was 13 years old. He hasn’t beaten her yet, but it’s changed her, in more ways than any of us non-terminal people could ever comprehend. Our casual intellectual acceptance that we are all terminal and will one day die is not nearly the same as carrying Death on your skin and in your bones, to feel life seeping out of your pores and stalk you in the night. To sit on your chest and steal the breath from your malfunctioning, fluid-filled lungs.

Augustus Waters is sheer delight and I don’t give a donkey’s ass that the way he and Hazel speak to one another is unrealistic because it is filled with such a sincere sweetness and adorable, lovable humor I couldn’t get enough. It broke through my armor, tore a hole through my cynical self, and had me falling head over heels in love with these two. Each is defiant in the way that only a young person battling Death can be defiant, they are warm and insecure and brave and foolish and selfish and sad and real. I’m not going to say realistic — we could argue that point til the cows come home — but not once did they ever stop being authentic.

What can I say? I loved them. I loved this book. Okay?

Okay.

Occasionally, I like to play around with book trailers. Here is one I made for this lovely little book.

Revolution by Jennifer Donnelly

Revolution ★★★★
Jennifer Donnelly
Delacorte Books for Young Readers, 2010

“Because God loves us,
but the devil takes an interest.” ~Revolution

revolutionI find writing reviews for books I love quite intimidating really. I feel overwhelmed with the task of ever doing a book justice that I want everyone to read. And then there’s always the risk that if you gush too much, it’s going to turn people off, or build their expectations so high that when they do pick the book up they can’t help but be a little disappointed. But perhaps I’m over thinking it too much.

I had never read anything by Jennifer Donnelly before and didn’t know quite what to expect when I picked up Revolution. I thought the cover quite beautiful, and the historical aspect of the story called to me, so I had no qualms about giving it a try. What can I say about a book that totally swept me up in its pages and consumed my every free thought when I wasn’t reading it? The sheer beauty of some of its prose squeezed my heart. Donnelly does such an amazing job writing about music that I swear sometimes I heard the notes wafting up from the page. I’ve never claimed to be a music aficionado of any age or style, I don’t read music, I’ve never taken a music appreciation class – but I listen to music. It has an undeniably important place in my life, as vital as reading, and there is just something so simple and honest about the way Donnelly threads music throughout this novel that left me totally captivated.

Then there’s the story – about a defeated young girl undone by tragedy who has lost her way, and her will to live. Andi is angry at herself, at the world, and the depth of her grief and rage is like a sharp and vicious thing that she carries in her chest. Andi is definitely a young woman spiraling out of control.

I love how this novel unfolds, that it is two stories with two narrators – one contemporary one historical. The detail is so vivid, the sense of place so strong, you walk the streets of Paris and run through the catacombs that haunt the modern city to this day. French Revolutionary history is filled with brutality, intrigue, betrayal, hope and disillusionment. As a novelist, you don’t have to exaggerate any of the historical details, you simply stand out of the way and let the story tell itself. I feel that’s what Donnelly has done here; she’s taken her fictional creation – Alexandrine – and written her into the pages of history. Through Alexandrine’s diary, we get an intimate look at the scale of human barbarity it takes to pull off a Revolution.

Andi becomes consumed with the diary and with Alexandrine’s fate and the fate of the boy King locked in a tower to rot. She can only hope that the diary can give her the peace and understanding she seeks to save her own life. This book is gorgeously textured and layered like an 18th century French painting, or a beautiful piece of composed music. It is also a pulse-pounding page-turning adventure, an enigmatic historical mystery shrouded in intrigue and speculation. It’s a love story about the bonds between parent and child, brother and sister, lovers and friends. What else can I say? Read this book.

Random House has done a sumptuous book trailer for Revolution. Enjoy!

Matched by Ally Condie

Matched (2010)★★★★
by Ally Condie

Cassia has always trusted the Society to make the right choices for her: what to read, what to watch, what to believe. So when Xander’s face appears on-screen at her Matching ceremony, Cassia knows with complete certainty that he is her ideal mate . . . until she sees Ky Markham’s face flash for an instant before the screen fades to black.

matchedIt seems too many reviewers are slamming this book because they feel it is a blatant rip-off of Lois Lowry’s The Giver. Well, we might as well string up Suzanne Collins too then, and burn the Hunger Games trilogy because its plot is very similar to the Japanese novel, Battle Royale. Deadly games is not a new idea — Stephen King wrote his dystopian novellas The Long Walk and The Running Man in the ’70s and you can be sure he wasn’t inventing anything new then either.

The point is, great novels come along and hugely inspire other writers, and quite often a lot of what we would consider “the best” “most original” stories, are themselves derived from even earlier works. Lowry herself is obviously hugely influenced by other classic dystopian tales, like 1984, Fahrenheit 451, Brave New World, Soylent Green and The Handmaid’s Tale (and many others that would become obvious I’m sure with a little more reflection).

I absolutely adored the film Pleasantville which in its own unique way takes something fundamental from The Giver too (colorless world, the color red). But that’s okay, because ideas are meant to be shared, adapted, reinterpreted, re-designed. Sometimes a salient plot point stays the same but the characters change, as well as the stakes and outcome.

I applaud what Ally Condie has done here — yes, in many ways Matched is very similar to The Giver, but there’s also a sweetness and richness present that’s all Condie. Cassia is lovely, a typical teenager who finds herself questioning her society, her values, everything around her. She’s growing up, she’s falling in love, and suddenly the world she thought she always knew starts to look very different. Ky and Xander are heroes worth cheering for, equally as engaging as Gale and Peeta from the Hunger Games.

I love dystopian fiction — the chilling, gritty disturbing kind — and though Matched doesn’t quite make it to that level, I still loved reading it. The world Condie builds is thought-provoking and will keep even the most reluctant readers engaged because of its accessibility. The value of words is so achingly portrayed here as Cassia and Ky build intimacy from banned poetry, and pledge to one another to “not go gentle”. The scenes where Ky is teaching her cursive are particularly sweet and vulnerable. I very much look forward to reading the rest of the series. Crossed (Matched #2) is set for publication November 2011.

Freedom to Read Week is upon us, and Matched is the perfect mind floss to generate debate amongst the young and young at heart on the importance of personal choice. You fight for it. You don’t ever let it be taken from you. Sameness, calmness, serenity … these may sound like lofty goals, comforting words, but when they come at the cost of the individual’s right to explore, question, challenge, choose, then that cost is too high.

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rage at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
(Dylan Thomas)

My Name is Memory — Quite the forgettable read

My Name is Memory (2010) ★ ★
by Ann Brashares

Daniel has spent centuries falling in love with the same girl. Life after life, crossing continents and dynasties, he and Sophia (despite her changing name and form) have been drawn together, and he remembers it all. Daniel has “the memory”, the ability to recall past lives and recognize souls of those he’s previously known. It is a gift and a curse. For all the times that he and Sophia have been drawn together throughout history, they have also been torn painfully, fatally, apart. A love always too short (Product Description).

memoryOh my, where to begin. Brashares has taken an amazing idea and just doesn’t deliver. My Name is Memory is supposed to be a grand, sweeping, epic love story that reaches across a thousand years, but I didn’t ever find myself relating to the lovers in any meaningful way, nor did I consider their “soulful” bond convincing. Because it really isn’t. They don’t know each other, so how can they truly love each other?

Lucy doesn’t ever remember anything and Daniel is just plain nutty. He is  consumed by a lustful infatuation that because it’s gone unrequited century after century, grows exponentially in severity (and ludicrousness). He’s a stalker essentially, having built up a centuries-old romance based solely upon a few modest interactions. Lucy/Sophia is all his soul can think about, to the point where Daniel never really lives any of his numerous lives. I just wanted to shake him!

I know sometimes in romances, it’s important to set up “an obstacle” to the lovers — a good, solid reason keeping them apart. The obstacles here are torturous!! You think it’s tough getting “the timing” right in a regular relationship? Also, Daniel’s reluctance to go to Lucy when he has the chance is maddening. His hesitation doesn’t make any sense!!! Nor does his fear and awkwardness — he’d rather watch (stalk!) her from afar than do anything sensible about it. As long as she’s on “his grid” he can breathe easily. You would think after a thousand years to get ready for this, he’d have a plan in place, something to try, rather than sitting back and trying nothing. Argh!! When he finally does make his move, it all happens so fast, and is over so suddenly, I was just left shaking my head in disbelief.

I’m giving the book two stars because while I was immensely disappointed, I did not hate it, and I can see where others who believe in soul mates might find the story enchanting. I was also taken with the idea of souls coming back over and over, and that your mother in one life could come back as your best friend in the next life. I did enjoy Brashares’ exploration of reincarnation, how some souls come back repeatedly, while others burn so bright they live just one life never to return.

Daniel’s burden is a heavy one –- it would be very difficult to live each life anew, if you could remember all the others that came before, and you’re fairly certain there will be more lives to follow. What makes this life so precious is that most of us feel it’s the only one we get, so we better make it count. In many ways, Daniel’s plight is reminiscent of vampires, who live to see centuries pass and are never really a part of the current times. They are “other”–monsters to some–and must live apart and without the connections that make us human. In essence, Daniel is living his life this way; he may die many, many times, but he lives his lives like an immortal – above and apart from the rest of us.

I have a feeling this book will be compared to The Time Traveler’s Wife. Let me tell you that it is nothing like it, and if you pick up My Name is Memory hoping for that, you will be painfully disappointed. Especially if you hate ambiguous / cliffhanger endings.  Rating: ★★

A book like no other

The Book Thief ★ ★ ★ ★ ★
Markus Zusak
Knopf Books for Young Readers, 2006

It’s just a small story really, about among other things: a girl, some words, an accordionist, some fanatical Germans, a Jewish fist-fighter, and quite a lot of thievery…

The only thing worse than a boy who hates you: a boy that loves you. ~ The Book Thief

the book thiefThis book left me gutted and absolutely speechless.  It is the kind of book that we can only hope to see once or twice in a generation. And that’s if we’re lucky.

Narrating The Book Thief is Death, who confesses he is haunted by humans — our beauty, our savagery, our contradictions. I, on the other hand, will remain haunted by Liesel’s story for the rest of my life (and little Rudy Steiner). There is really no way to describe this book that will come anywhere close to doing it justice. It defies all regular categorization and usual comparisons.

There are only a handful of books that after the reading is done I want to run out and buy copies for everyone I know and plead with them to drop whatever it is they are doing and read it immediately (before they get hit by a bus or a comet smashes into the Earth) — this is one of those books. The words lyrical and profound, spiritual and uncompromising are quite often overused, to the point where we’ve rendered them almost meaningless and that’s too bad, because I want to use them here and have them mean something.

Summer came. For the book thief, everything was going nicely. For me, the sky was the color of Jews. When their bodies had finished scouring for gaps in the door, their souls rose up. When their fingernails had scratched at the wood and in some cases were nailed into it by sheer force of desperation, their spirits came toward me, into my arms, and we climbed out of those shower facilities, onto the roof and up, into eternity’s certain breadth. They just kept feeding me. Minute after minute. Shower after shower.

Zusak’s prose is staggeringly gorgeous both in its simplicity and in its complexity; his choice of words is flawless and inspired. I am humbled by such immense talent. The Book Thief is a gift for the ages, a love song to words, books, and what it means to be human.  It is a story that will steal (and break) your heart.

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